The Olympics are a cacophony of symbols, bringing the world together through sport. From the first modern games to now, what the participants wear has been detailed and preserved as a key component of the games. Over the years, the parade of nations into the Olympic stadium has become a chance for delegations to broadcast sartorial signals about their country.
The modern iteration of the Olympics owes its existence to Pierre de Coubertin, a Frenchman who, in 1894, set in motion the revival of the Olympic Games after more than 1,500 years of absence. That year, he founded the International Olympic Committee, and the first modern games were held two years later. But the first opening ceremony would not take place until 1908, in London. It was, by today’s standards, a modest affair. Delegations paraded into the stadium and King Edward VII declared the games open.
The Fourth Olympiad — the official report covering the 1908 games – noted that during the opening ceremonies, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden “were especially noticeable for their neat and uniform appearance.” Military influences in dress and walk were observed in the athletes whose home countries had a policy of conscription. Gymnastics costumers were on display, and the “Danish ladies in gymnastic costume were loudly and deservedly applauded.” The only other remarks on style dealt with the English contingent, who “were led by an Oxford Blue, a Cambridge Blue, and a former member of the Eton Eight.”
The report for the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, describes the effects World War I had on athletes during an opening ceremony that lasted a mere 30 minutes. According to the writeup, “Parading with military precision, the stride of many of the athletes showing that in other years they had marcht in the uniforms of their countries to strains more martial than those at the Olympic stadium, the different contingents swung past the reviewing stand and around into the hockey box facing the tribunal of honor.”
There were multiple colors on display in the countries’ uniforms. The Norwegians and Japanese had chosen “somber blue,” while the Americans were clad in white. Surrounded by icy blues and a cloudless sky, it was “a picture of Winter,” according to the report. In pictures, many of the athletes are wearing hats. Canada paired dark pants with a white top, with a maple leaf figuring prominently in the center.
The importance of the ceremony was underscored in the even the earliest reports, but television has greatly enhanced the role of the opening ceremony. That visual medium made the event a chance for a host country to display history and culture in local and global terms. Viewers have come to expect a show, and since each delegation at the opening ceremony is to be treated equally, how the athletes are attired can be a display of nationalism.
The report from the 1968 games in Mexico called the parade the “central event” of the day. More than 7,000 athletes from 119 nations participated. ”Costumes were varied and dazzling. The Nigerians wore green robes, the Australian girls bright yellow dresses. The powerfully-built Mongolian flag-bearer drew applause for his red loincloth, flowing pink cape and buccaneer’s knee boots. The Bulgarians carried roses, which they tossed to the cheering crowd,” the report says.
In that Cold War-era games, Soviet power was on display through the country’s flag bearer, Leonid Zhabotinsky. He wore a navy blue blazer and refused the assistance of a hip socket to carry the flag, choosing to hold it “straight out in front of him in one mighty fist.”
By the time of the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway, there was tremendous focus on the cultural aspects of the opening ceremony. That year’s report tells of Norwegian air acrobats who parachuted in, the singing of children’s choirs, and a traditional bridal procession from Hardanger.
The use of folk costumes by the host country was meant to showcase the varied aspect of historical Norwegian dress. Attendees were part of the fashion statement as well, having been given white capes to wear during the event so “that the entire arena — including the spectators — would be white. This would provide a better contrast to the colours worn by the Opening Ceremony participants,” per the 1994 report. However, unlike previous Olympic writeups, the emphasis is not on the delegation’s selected outfits, but instead highlighted the displays of Norwegian traditions.
Just as the host country has come to play a larger role in the ceremony’s planning and entertainment, the importance of showing national pride through dress has been heightened for the delegates. Since 2008, the U.S. Olympic delegation has been outfitted by Ralph Lauren.
As in previous years, red, white, and navy are heavily used by the Ralph Lauren design team. For the parade in Sochi, Russia, athletes will wear cardigans combining emblems of the American flag with the Olympic rings. In order to avoid the controversy of the London Games, during which it was revealed that Team USA’s attire was made in China, a press release clearly states that all pieces were made in America.